In recent posts, we have addressed knowledge, belief, and worldview, and how adults choose their worldviews, eventually. One can have all the knowledge and intelligence in the world and still be as dumb as a post. If highly intelligent and bad, one simply gets to evil faster, producing successful evil actions in increasing magnitude. History is laced with examples. As in the tale of Mark 5:9, evil spirits are legion and drown many swine.
So, we all seek the missing, hard-to-define quality called wisdom. That is, we want wisdom to know the good and wisdom or prudence to guide actions. With wisdom in mind, we find ourselves always coming back to Dr. James Hall, the Praxis Circle Contributor featured in the video above. If ever there was a local Yoda (Dr. Hall being a former University of Richmond professor) to help us along the rugged road of worldview building, while doing our best to avoid the dark side, he or she would be Dr. Hall.
By this point, you should be starting to accuse us of being obsessed with evil, if we are doing our job. We have already admitted it might be much more fun being bad than being good, so it would be hard to deny the accusation. However, we must say this isn’t because of any Western fascination with “original sin,” producing a tendency of locating evil in newborn babies or holding women prisoner in the hands of an angry God. (Men would deserve it.) Rather, it’s Western Civilization that requires a vigil on moral acceptability, and for excellent reasons.
As a result, one of our goals here at Praxis Circle in our Circling posts is to clarify why the focus on evil is necessary, good, and quite beyond our control. Of course, we can’t accomplish all of this in one post, but we will give it a try, starting now.
Just a few posts ago we covered maybe the third most important question Western Civilization places before us: “To be, or not to be?” Now, we hope you haven’t been thinking too much about this one. That would not be a good sign, but it is one that seems to be much more popular now than in the 1960’s and 1970’s, which we remember well. All the studies show this today. One reason might be an increase in secularization of the type that knocks truth, morality, and family. Just a speculation. We will only note more depression, fewer babies, and more suicides – and all just when we are wealthier and more prosperous than ever.
What do you think is going on?
Again, the only question we will begin to address today is that #1 toughest question for mortals: “Why is there evil in the world?” with its corollary, “What to do about it?” Our goal is to offer a framework here from which we can begin breaking down the challenge into its pieces. In other words, we need to understand the problem before fixing it.
With that in mind and just to prove that we’ve done some homework, please see the picture below offering a sample from our Praxis Circle Library. Each of the books pictured below directly address this question, offer possible answers, and even admit to worldview conclusions. (Of course, there are countless books of this type.)
There are many reasons why the West focuses so much on evil, but perhaps the most important reason is the least mentioned: As the Roman Empire left behind its polytheistic world of good and bad gods and embraced the monotheistic world of an All-Good God, the “I am that I am” God called God, it had to explain why the world could then have so much pain and suffering.
As described last time, answers to this key question have led many Westerners away from God, but most, perhaps, to a place closer to God. Who is to say what the future will bring? The picture above includes several books written by Praxis Circle Contributors describing life journeys that have taken these authors in all directions.
Whatever worldview we might select as individuals, the West’s journey beginning with Rome’s gradual acceptance of monotheism has had immensely good consequences, and it is ironic that these consequences resulted as much from focusing on the dark, as well as the light. Gaining a good understanding of why this is true is part of our task.
Of course, anything Western must start with the Bible, and there, personal stories and sex matters. Pictures, metaphors, and short Biblical passages are worth a thousand worlds. To be more specific on the Bible, Genesis lays out all of time with creation, the Garden, the apple, and its East of Eden stories foreshadowing the rest of the Good Book. It’s always dangerous to go from the world’s best storied images to worldview principles, but that’s what human beings do to make sense of life, and that’s what we need to do here in short order.
But first, we need to mention that evil is a large buzz word encompassing the ideas of pain and suffering under certain conditions. We know pain has something to do with nerve sensory abilities, and suffering involves pain in extended time. The opposite of pain might be pleasure, and we know bodily pleasure relates to the three happy hormones – dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
“Perfect. Good things do come in threes,” it is true.
Interestingly, in moving from pain to suffering, we often find we’re observing mental states or situations that initially do not seem to involve physical pain at all. That would be because there are two basic types of pain, the “real” kind and the type that can hurt much more, psychological pain. A key insight is both types of pain are quite real, of course, with psychological pain often becoming physical quickly with severe, long-lasting effect. Moreover, it’s frequently invisible, carried only inside the injured person. As a result, it easily spreads through the behavior of injured parties, much like Covid-19; it is difficult to detect and stop, much less reverse.
“Do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.” Right?
Well, psychological pain always hurts you and your relevant group when it is immoral, dark, or even evil. Unless you are not a “good person.” In fact, psychological pain is extremely damaging and lives altering. The ancients understood this completely everywhere the world, though cultures often defined the good differently.
Sound familiar? The world’s monotheisms call it sin and think it most true to understand as a stubborn, human, and possibly inherent condition. This is a default worldview position for millions that’s hard to argue with, unless you can see psychological pain being eliminated from human life. Having a word for it keeps psychological pain front-of-mind and easier to detect and stop as it spreads.
Of course, the paradoxical catch is the concept of sin as a default position can cause psychological pain itself, transforming a cure into a sickness. This occurs when wisdom is absent in injured parties or relevant groups. Many psychiatrists see an inability to understand the good and act on it as a physical or learned condition. They are no doubt correct in many cases. We believe in human gradations across the spectrum of inherited-to-learned. We also believe in consciousness & free will, and there is grace.
Importantly, monotheisms have employed or experienced cures for every kind of sin, too, long before we had certified counselors or M.D.s. Indeed, seeing your shrink might be the right place to start. In any case, it’s probably time to move on to our last points on pain.
To push the analysis here one last step, it seems human beings suffer from psychological “non-pain pain” far more than most other creatures, be they plants or most animals. Perhaps a good moral sense is implanted in us or has evolved. Finally, our torment can even involve far too much pleasure. Yes, this is really getting complicated! To get coordinates on this claim, please see the Seven Vices, particularly lust and gluttony, along with greed and envy which can deliver the first two and much more.
Our conclusion on pain? Being human isn’t easy; no, not at all.
So, having arrived at our pleasurable-, fun-vice waypoint, it’s time to take a rest. Let’s break for a few minutes. This is the perfect lead-in to the worldly authority on vice in the United States, Hollywood, for some Biblical pointers. Afterward, we’ll be in a good position to skip over the Garden and the Apple to get quickly to our final PC videos.
One of the silliest movies of all time, though fascinating as a Swinging Sixties, “mod” period piece – and which didn’t do too badly at the box office – is Three in the Attic, released in 1968. While supposedly a comedy, it concerns the Sexual Revolution and the second wave feminist movement. It was a harbinger of today’s #Metoo Movement and uprisings against the Jerry Epsteins-of-the-world. The film was rated R for Restricted, meaning those 16 or younger needed an adult to attend. In our opinion, most parents then would have given Three in the Attic an X rating. Today it would be PG. We were not adults then and were not brave enough to ask a parent’s permission; besides, Hollywood wasn’t as good at R- or X-rated films as it is now.
American International Pictures (AIP) produced the film. The company specialized in off-beat young adult, often B movies (meaning movies made for the #2 slot in a double feature) that prospered from 1955 to 1980. Some of AIP’s memorable productions are I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, What’s Up, Tiger Lilly?, and our personal favorite among a whole host of Beach Party films with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. AIP ended by beginning the Mad Max series.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Three in the Attic is it was filmed entirely at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The movie takes Tar Heel and Chapel Hill fans on a tour of the campus and town during the 1960’s, where viewers see the South Building, Polk Place, Kenan Dormitory, the ATO Fraternity House (including the so-called Great Hall and the Cave), a familiar motor court some will remember, beautiful surrounding countryside, and even the inside of a legendary 60’s, 70’s bar on Rosemary Street known as The Shack. The picture shown below was taken when we were in school in 1978 just before the Shack was torn down.
The Three in the Attic plot involves a slick male student, Paxton Quigley, attending an all-male Willard College in Vermont who cheats on his girlfriend, Tobey Clinton (we kid you not), who is attending the sister school, Fulton College, nearby. The fraternity boy brags about it and tries to see how far he can go. A love “quadrangle” soon develops involving two other unusual female students, an artist and a hippie, stereotyped characters not far from zany 60’s truth. There is a toehold on story and sympathy-for-character development. Then, all three ladies discover the deception and decide to get even. With flawless execution, the three then torture poor Paxton by locking him in their dormitory attic, where he’s forced to have round-the-clock, continuous “relations.” After a couple weeks of this agony, the young man sees how terribly wrong he has been, ends his hunger strike, eventually says uncle on the sex, and then makes up with his original girlfriend; you know, the one who just finished torturing him. Neither care about how they got there; they’re just interested now in the future. In the end, while the audience is left to wonder, our distinct impression is the director wants us to believe Paxton and Tobey live happily ever after.
Even better, the public sees social justice before knowing the term. The white male receives his due. Female, African-American, and Jew are avenged. The lessons of the 60’s are true and good.
While we are 100% certain Austin Powers would love this movie, and that Q would want to inquire about the hippie student’s alter ego she calls her Id, voiced in the clip linked above, our main points here are: (1) Family relations of a proper kind do matter quite a bit in the West going back to God, Adam, and Eve, (2) Evil can result from curiosity and far too much pleasure, and (3) Knowledge gained from the classroom to the attic is important to worldview and finding ones way. Our impression from recent developments in feminism is that men and women have realized during the 50 years since Three in the Attic that, if one follows B movie ways, one can end up with a B movie life.
We will not go so far to say that gender or sex is the main issue, though it is for the young protagonist in Three in the Attic. Any man can sympathize. We knew many in the 1970’s in college who would have killed to be tortured like Paxton Quigley. Nonetheless, the 1970’s in Chapel Hill were much different than the movie portrays the 1960’s. In fact, we spent more time trying to get ready for the real world of equal treatment under the law that had been earned over the last 200 years, while getting rid of the 1960’s junk we were sick of. After Vietnam, we wanted to get back to American “normal,” whatever version of Animal House or Paper Chase that might have been.
And was it fun.
So, as The Three in the Attic makes clear, trinities come in all forms, and they present challenges of good and evil to everyone. Our last movie point of the day before moving on is that many men have an even more serious problem with their fathers than with their significant others. Come to think of it, that’s a good lead-out from Hollywood to the two primary categories of evil we have yet to mention in a formal way.
Evil’s Two Categories
To recap, extended pain or suffering or even death seem to be the end result of what we call evil. In a recent post we offered Dr. Charles Mathewes’ summary of the three generally-accepted types of evil without reference to their specific source – evil as a void of the good, evil as a positive being (or existence) of some sort, or evil arising as a process. Naturally, this definition also helps define good as a positive being (or existence), good as an absence of evil, or good produced via process. We think all three observations have strong reference in human life and literature, and each has a distinctive relationship to the other two well-known categories of evil, usually referred to as Human Evil and Natural Evil.
Human evil, also referred to as moral evil, is evil that humans cause via their own thoughts and actions. The reason human evil is also referred to as moral evil is that only human beings by way of free will can produce it. This is exactly the type of evil that Dr. Hall is referring to in the video featured at the top. Dr. Hall explains there how human nature and free will are crucial to the West in making possible the good, morality, and religion itself. This is one of the most important video clips in the Praxis Circle library. Grasping its simple content is crucial to understanding why the West has evolved the way it has, why it has created the institutions in their current form, and why it chooses to place freedom at the very center of human existence (with other basics we’ll touch on in future posts).
Freedom becomes the basic theodicy for human evil, which includes the lion’s share of the most egregious evil we find in history. Most persons do find this explanation reasonably satisfying, though far from complete. Again, we are not trying to offer answers now like the books in the picture above; we are simply offering a framework for future reference.
Natural evil refers to human pain and suffering caused by nature, such as death in all its natural forms, fires, freezes, storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, meteors, disasters, famines, draughts, diseases, unintended violence or accidents, animal attacks, poisoning, etc. With Covid-19, natural evil is scoring a direct hit on humanity. Other legendary examples are the Flood, the Lisbon earthquake, and murderous parasites. Natural evil involves realities of earthly life that either just happen to exist outside human control or that result from unintended human action. If you believe there is an All-Powerful and Intelligent Creator-Designer God, then you must believe that this god designed the world this way on some basis, or at least designed it with a potential to slide into its current less-than-optimal state.
Natural evil is not a form that monotheists highlight much by name, though they address it squarely when it arises. Many theologians and philosophers are doing this now. For millions, there are extremely good and satisfying theodicies for natural evil, though they are more difficult to explain than for human evil. Again, we will not try to do that here; it’s simply too involved in the space remaining.
We will say, however, that just as human evil becomes moral evil due to human malfeasance, it would not be totally off-base to call natural evil human or godly evil on the same basis. There can be a relationship between human and natural evil where human evil causes the latter (e.g., agricultural and environmental disasters). Furthermore, many do blame the God of the Bible and Koran for both human and natural evil, since God as Creator must have designed both. In a short overview, Dr. Hall outlines some of the main issues involved with natural evil quite well in this video:
Obviously, polytheist and certain Eastern religions do not have this issue for one or more of these reasons: (1) All gods are not good and some enjoy doing evil, (2) This is just the way the world is, or (3) The world had no beginning in the first place. In the latter case, God and any natural law are simply in the universe somehow along with the rest of us. Some atheists allow for human evil but, of course, cannot fault God, since no such being exists. Still other atheists do not believe in evil at all for a variety of reasons, not the least being particle matter has no consciousness. Moreover, the determinism involved in materialist cause and effect eliminates the existence of free will, as Dr. Hall explains, a logical requirement for virtue and vice of any kind.
In the future we will try to explain how various worldviews handle these two types of evil. Every worldview must address why bad things happen to good people, and we can say for sure that no worldview offers a completely satisfying answer. All worldviews create serious residual problems for us concerning human and natural evil. An excellent article appeared just this morning that is directly on point about natural evil and Covid-19, The Coronavirus Isn’t God’s Will. It describes a terrific pathway many Jews and Christians take, though it still implicates God and is far from perfect, if one’s bottom line demand is heaven now.
Certainly, we all would much prefer that life not include evil and other worldview traps, especially when we or loved ones get snared. But would we eliminate challenge, pain, suffering, and evil totally? That’s difficult to say, and opinions will vary quite a bit.
Neo consciously took the red pill (see second video in this linked post) and swallowed after full disclosure of the consequences, and Luke Skywalker could have joined his father and the Dark Side in the clip above, perhaps eliminating the pain and suffering that follows. To what extent is it our place to quibble with God today that maybe a little less pain and suffering would have been just fine for His and our purposes? In other words, could the same goals for human life be achieved with less severity in pain and suffering than we currently face? Probably so, but it’s hard be sure.
Our final observation is that we are here, life is often quite difficult, and, at least in this world so far, it always ends for humans. This is reality. So, why bother with esoteric issues like worldview? Can’t we just deal with necessities and problems as they pop up day-to-day? Why not deal only with reality and not worry about theodicies and worldview at all? Many ask these questions everyday.
Our answer is that how we think of good and evil has every influence on how successful we are in our daily lives as human beings or creatures of God, and that building a sound worldview is the only way forward with a hope of attaining a good and happy life.
Lastly, we would like to offer Dr. Hall’s clip below where he explains how he got involved in The Great Courses. We highly recommend TGC’s content as a terrific way to build ones worldview over time. In fact, you can give yourself the equivalent of several college degrees listening to or viewing some of the best lectures in the world on just about any subject. Within our own narrow worldview space here at Praxis Circle, we find ourselves pursuing the same objectives Dr. Hall attributes to The Great Courses.
PS – In a future post we’ll reveal the second most important question to Western Civilization. If you have any good ideas about what that might be, please let us know. We have our own bias. Hint and surprise! – it relates to evil, too.